I’ve been having lot of physical therapy the last few years. I’ve had a handful of knee surgeries, and now some new knee business and a rotator cuff injury, so PT comes with the territory. A few weeks ago, as Yu-Lan was manipulating my shoulder, I had a little epiphany: I don’t trust people with my body. I don’t relax in other people’s hands.
Yu-Lan needed my arm limp so she could move my shoulder the ways she needed to. I couldn’t relax it. I kept thinking I had relaxed it, and then she’d shake her head and my arm and say, “Let it go.” This went on for a while.
My past PT experiences have been similar. First Daniel, then Mark, tried really hard to get me to relax so they could do their work. I’ve been working with Jeremy for my shoulder–was seeing Yu-Lan because Jeremy was sick that day–and have had the same story play out with him.
With Daniel, I chalked up my tension to the fact that Daniel is beautiful. He looks like Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers. Really. To have this unreasonably-pretty young man put his hands on me was both pleasant and alarming. But–with no intention to throw shade–that wasn’t the issue with Mark. And, as cute as Jeremy is, he’s not the kind of cute I go for, so I definitely can’t blame my libido.
I’m middle-aged. I got fat at 15. I’ve spent pretty much my whole life paying very close attention to my body. I’ve learned to be hyper-aware of how much space I’m taking up at any given time, and of how I’m taking that space. I’ve learned to be aware of how my body exists in relationship to other people’s bodies, to other people’s thoughts and feelings about my body.
I’ve spent years choosing to stand so as not to force other passengers on the train or bus to accommodate my size. When I have chosen to sit, I’ve used the things I’ve learned about how to angle my body so that it fills less space, even though all of those tricks leave me uncomfortable.
But all of that, all of those ways of focusing on my body, are different. What I realized with Yu-Lan is something other. Not trusting people to handle my body with care points past the body-awareness I’ve had to develop as a fat person. Points, instead, to the root catalyst of my fat. I don’t trust people with my body because people haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy when it comes to my body.
It’s not a particularly surprising point, of course. Surely the fact that I’ve been writing so much about my body lately is why working with Yu-Lan illuminated this point for me. But what does it mean? What has it meant over time in my life?
It’s little things: Removing myself from any professional development or team-building activity that would or could possibly include trust falls or other intense physical contact with co-workers. Refusing a hand up when climbing walls or trees, when mounting horses, preferring to risk myself by managing on my own rather than risk myself by relying on someone else’s ability to make me safe.
It’s little things: I am a lousy partner dancer, incapable of letting a man lead. I’ve had one male partner who was able to lead me without me fighting against his gentle guide. One. Every other time I’ve tried partner dancing, it has ended badly. I literally resist my partner’s movements, move in opposition to him as if we are adversaries. It’s never been confrontational, but it sure as hell has made for awkward, clashing dance. I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that I am a crap dancer–because I am a crap dancer–but I think there’s more to it than that. When I dance alone, I’m a far less crappy dancer. When I took belly dance classes, for example, I was totally dance dyslexic–always moving in the exact opposite direction from the one the instructor indicated–but the moves were fluid, came naturally out of my muscles without resistance.
It’s not-so-little-but-entirely-obvious things: Struggling with medical exams, fighting against doctors’ requests for access to my body the way I fight a partner’s dance moves. Struggling to fully relax in the arms of a lover, in bed with a lover. Struggling to trust that person not to morph into someone else, someone untrustworthy, someone dangerous, having my mind play the mean trick of showing my lover change faces as he lies beside me in bed, turning into a stranger, into a demon, into the devil.
I’m wondering about the fact that I am extremely ticklish … which makes me think about cats. And Elmo. (Yes, of course. Elmo.) But first cats.
Cats have this thing where they use their purring as protection. When they are stressed or nervous or frightened, some cats will purr to appease, to signal the need for help. Purring appeals to us, makes the cat seem kinder, sweeter, makes us–if we aren’t monsters–less likely to harm the cat. If the cat is afraid of you and purring inspires you to pet the cat, to show it kindness and offer it food or care, that fear response is helpful, protective.
And this is why I’m thinking about my ticklishness and Elmo. I thought Tickle Me Elmo was incredibly annoying, but also creepily manic. That crazed, fake, flinching laughter was a lot like my own response to being tickled, something I’m only seeing now, and I wonder if that was another reason I loathed that toy.
When we are tickled, we are at the mercy of the person tickling us. We are in their hands, literally. And the places where they touch us, where we are sensitive to tickling, aren’t the places casual acquaintances would normally touch us: our waists, the backs of our knees, under our chins, the bottoms of our feet, our stomachs. People who tickle others force an intimacy that may or may not be welcome, desired.
Is then, the response to tickling–manic laughter–like the cat’s purr? Is my hysterical laugh my fear response masked as cuteness? My way of inspiring the person touching me to treat me kindly?
I have one strong memory of giving myself over to strangers’ hands, of going completely limp and letting other people manage my body.
Years ago, my sister and I went to an Echo and the Bunnymen concert at the old Felt Forum. Fox, my sister, and I went to a lot of concerts back then. We were good at getting right up in front of the stage. But Fox never stayed at the front. There would always be a moment when she’d look at me and say she was headed to the back of the venue. I, stubbornly, refused to go with her–we were right at the front!–so we’d pick a spot to meet after the show, and she’d disappear through the crowd.
The Echo and the Bunnymen show was no different. She told me it was time for her to go, we picked our meetup spot, and she left. Almost immediately, the crowd turned violent–because that’s Fox’s spidey-sense super power: she knows when a crowd is about to turn. People were pushing and elbowing and punching to get those of us in front out of their way. I was knocked to the ground and the people around me began kicking me. I couldn’t get myself up, and I was pretty sure I was going to die.
From nowhere, a stranger was cradling my head and then pulling me up, some man I didn’t know. He got me on my feet and kept his arm around me, asked me what I wanted to do. He said I could stay, and he’d keep me beside him, keep me safe, or he could get me out. I didn’t see how he could manage it, but I opted for getting out.
He said I’d have to go hand over hand up to the front barricade and then out. That didn’t make any sense, but I said okay, and somehow he lifted me and lay me across the top of the crowd and the crowd passed me–hand over hand–up to the security staff at the barricade and they pulled me down and helped me get out.
That whole passing-hand-over-hand part? I was rag-doll limp. I didn’t assist in my rescue even enough to lift my feet so that my big, combat-booted feet didn’t smack folks in the head as I was passed forward.
Never mind the fact that I still believe that man didn’t actually exist, that he was my guardian angel in corporeal form intervening because it wasn’t my time yet. I certainly never saw him after the show. And there’s no way he should have been able to lift me as easily as he did and settle me on top of the crowd. There’s no way the crowd–which seconds earlier had been kicking the life out of me–should have come together to pass me up to the security guards. Clearly Divine intervention.
But never mind all of that. How was I able to be so handle-able? How did I manage to go fully limp at a moment when I knew I was at the mercy of dangerous strangers?
In my PT visit after working with Yu-Lan,, Jeremy needed me to trust him. He needed to test the movement of my pelvis, hips, and knees. To do that, I had to be limp, had to let him take my leg in his arms and bend and twist and swing and pull it in many different ways. I had to lie limp while he pressed down on my pelvis and into the space where my thighs meet my torso. Some of these movements are awkwardly intimate, but Jeremy is wonderfully professional. While being gentle and sure-handed, he basically manipulates my body as if I were a large mound of bread dough–no danger of mistaking the intent of his touches.
I kept freezing up. Seizing up. Tried several times to pull away from him. He was worried that he was hurting me, but I assured him he wasn’t.
“So quit fighting me,” he said, laughing.
Yeah. Would that it could be so simple.
One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
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I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.